Google unveiled its new cloud-based music streaming service during a keynote presentation at the Google I/O conference in May. The service allows users to upload their song library to Google’s storage servers so that their music can be played through a Web browser or on a compatible Android mobile device. Key to that sentence is upload. Google (and Amazon) have both bypassed licensing songs from the recording industry, preventing the ability to “scan and match” your collection… so if you have a large music library, you might want to wire up on a fast connection.Initial Thoughts
What I love is simple: Music Beta provides instant access to my iTunes library (and any other music I upload) from any computer, wherever I am (as long as I can connect). What I instantly liked about Music Beta was its seamless and automatic synchronization with iTunes. Not only did it upload my entire iTunes library, it also uploaded my playlists, song ratings and play counts. The free Music Manager app also automatically keeps Music Beta in sync with my iTunes library. On install, Music Manager asks me if it can scan my iTunes player (which is a key difference from Amazon). I keep my iTunes library on a removable SSD drive, and Music Beta linked to the library I had open based on iTunes. Amazon’s uploader, on the other hand, would not recognize my iTunes library on the external drive. I manually pointed it to the drive, but it didn’t upload iTunes specific metadata (play counts, ratings), and didn’t transfer my playlists.

On initial signup, Music Beta offers an array of free songs from several genre categories. I skipped this option, and found it a bit cheesy. This is where Google exposes some “holes” in their strategy… they don’t sell music. Amazon has the upper hand here, because any digital music bought on Amazon is instantly available in your Amazon Cloud Drive, and stored for free. When playing a song in Music Beta, you have an option to “shop” but you’re just sent to a Google search results page for that artist with links to Google shopping. I presume Apple’s cloud-based music locker will have deep integration with the iTunes music store. If Apple has a “scan and match” process (which seems likely since LaLa, the music streaming service it bought last year, had that exact feature), then Music Beta will quickly look old-school.

Hands-On
I’ve been using Music Beta for about a week now. Playback has been extremely smooth, with minimal hiccups. Using Wi-Fi I have been streaming my songs for hours on end with hardly any skipping or pauses. Typical to Google, there are a few user interface quirks that are somewhat frustrating, but with a little use I’m getting used to it. For example, I have a lot of playlists: about 70. I’d like to be able to collapse the “Playlists” folder in the sidebar so I don’t have to scroll the whole list. I’m a “metadata junkie” and love to rate my music so that I can get automatic mixes. I prefer the 1-5 star song rating system in iTunes. Music Beta uses a Pandora-like “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” rating system. These are all my songs, so I’m not going to have too many “thumbs down” in my library. Songs I rated 4 or 5 stars in iTunes automatically gets a “thumbs up” in Music Beta. Another user interface quirk is the actual icons for thumbs up and down. There’s not enough contrast between the up and down thumb, so it’s hard to tell what rating the song has.

I do like the metadata editing capabilities at the song level, something Amazon’s Cloud Player does not have. Music Beta also trumps Amazon with Instant Mixes (similar to iTune’s Genius Mixes), ratings, and play counts. I also haven’t figured out how to edit metadata in Amazon Cloud Player, but editing basic metadata in Google Music is simple.

Music Beta Step By Step

Music Manager
First, to get songs into Music Beta, you have to install Google’s proprietary Music Manager app. Unlike Amazon’s Flash-based app, Music Manager secretly installs itself into the Mac’s System Preferences. It would be nice if the app told us where it was installing. I spent some time looking in the Applications folder for it. Music Manager can upload the entire contents of your iTunes library, the contents of your local music folder, or the contents of specific folders you select. You can configure it to watch your iTunes library (or any selected folder) so that it can stay in sync. There is also an option for uploading at a specified interval, or you can manually initiate an upload at any time. It took about 36 hours to upload my near-3,000 song library (and I’m on a 6mbps upload speed). Music Manager hung up near the end and never showed that it “completed” the upload, however. I also needed to log out and log back in to Music Beta to see my playlists appear. Music Manager is great if you want to mirror your iTunes library. If you prefer a more fine-grained approach to your Music collection, you might find it a bit frustrating — uploading specific songs from multiple folders is not possible. Another big plus is you can access your music during the initial upload… no waiting for a large collection to upload before you start jamming!

Music Manager lets you know that you can begin listening right away… no need to wait for the upload to finish.


Music Manager scanned my iTunes player library and matched compatible songs for the upload.The Music Manager app installs in the System Preferences on the Mac. From here, you can configure how you want it to handle your library.

Web Player
What I like (and at times dislike) about Google is their approach to user interfaces. The Music Beta web player is stripped of anything non-essential, and is focused on getting you to the business of playing music right away.

 

On the left side of the UI, there is a library column that lets you choose a specific view of your library on the right: “New and recent”, “Songs”, “Artists”, “Albums”, and “Genre”. The “Songs” view gives you a flat sortable table of all your songs. The “Artists” views shows albums for each artist. When you select an artist, it will show the full discography for that artist — each album cover and a list of the songs.The “Albums” view displays a grid of album covers and titles.

I would like to see a bit more customization, however. I’d like to move the sidebar to the top or the bottom. I’d like to control my filtering options. Music Beta also gives you three auto playlists: “Thumbs Up”, “Recently Added”, and “Free Songs”. Since I skipped the “Free Songs” feature, I’d like to be able to delete that playlist. Also, as I mentioned above, I’d like to organize my own playlists to reduce all the scrolling. I’m on a Macbook Air 11.6 inch screen, so space real estate is a premium… even in Chrome’s full-screen mode.

My favorite feature is the “Instant Mix” playlist that generates an assortment of songs that are similar to one you have selected. It works great. I selected “Sir Duke” and chose “Make Instant Mix” and it created a 25-song playlist with what it deemed to be similar songs (it was good with the matches by selecting Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Earth, Wind & Fire, Curtis Mayfield and Diana Ross among others).

Music Beta also proved to be very good at making sure all my cover art was attached and accurate (with just a few hiccups).

The Web interface is fast and responsive. Google uses some HTML5 trickery to switch out the content when you change views, so you don’t have to wait for the full page to reload when you do something. Simple fade animations that are displayed during interface transitions make it feel like a native application. I miss the “auto cross-fade” of iTunes, but maybe soon we can have that too.

The web player’s interface allows easy access to Albums, Artists and Songs in your library.
Android Music App
To play your Music Beta songs on an Android device (no iOS support yet), you will need to download the Android Music app. On my HTC Thunderbolt I now have two apps named “Music” — Google’s and the default “Music” app provided by HTC. This app will be the default music player in future versions of Android. The Music Beta app has a visually rich user interface and immediately synced to my songs on the cloud drive without hesitation. From the Menu > Settings” screen, you can configure the app. You can choose which Gmail account to sync to, and set caching and streaming settings. A great feature is the app’s ability to download music for offline listening. You can “star” which songs you want to cache so you can have uninterrupted listening.

 

You can tailor your app experience based on how you hold your phone. Go into portrait orientation and the app operates much like a standard music player. You can scroll through your artists and albums and select a song to play. Rotate the phone into landscape orientation, however, and you will get a Cover Tunes-like interface with all your album covers floating across the screen.

Conclusion

Music Beta is impressive, and interestingly enough, already seems more “mature” than Amazon’s offering. In my opinion, Google can remove the “Beta” moniker already. The Web-based player is smooth and well-engineered. The mobile client support on Android is excellent. Streaming performance and audio quality are both good, however, I do have song hiccups more often than on Amazon’s service.When compared directly to Amazon’s service, I’m torn. I prefer the ease of use of Google’s service, but I like how easy Amazon makes purchasing and playing. I’ll wait to see what Apple’s service has to offer before swearing “allegiance” — but Google’s Music Beta is the one that Apple has to beat.

About the Author:

Brandon Carson

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Visit Brandon's page at http://www.brandonwcarson.com

Discussion

    InsayneBo23 May 2011 4:06 pm

    Awesome!

    InsayneBo23 May 2011 4:06 pm

    If anyone wants to get their hands on a free Google Music Beta invite, I found a site that was handing out from free. I thought it was too good to be true, until I found an invite sitting in my inbox 15 minutes later. :D

    If you want to try getting your own invite, here’s the link to the giveaway:

    http://freemusicbetainvites.com.nu

    AB28 May 2011 7:14 am

    I have a Music Beta account and have the app on my Thunderbolt, but there is no settings option. Any ideas?

    jwillensky4 June 2011 6:14 pm

    Great info, Brandon.

    watertower210024 June 2011 6:41 am

    You wrote “The free Music Manager app also automatically keeps Music Beta in sync with my iTunes library.”

    Is the metadata of a song synched between iTunes and Google Music Beta?

    Say I’ve already added a song to GMB and then later I change the info of a song in iTunes like the Album title, will that change be reflected in the metadata for the Music Beta copy of the song as well?